|Arthur Letts, at the |
time of his wedding
As he arrived in L.A., The Broadway Dept. Store, J.A. Williams & Co., Proprietors, had just gone bankrupt. While not in the main business district, Arthur believed in time that the business center would move that direction. Creditors asked for a public auction for the store's stock, estimated value $15,000. Arthur bid $8,167, winning the bid by $80. He needed $5,000 cash, with the balance due in 30 days. The Los Angeles National Bank loaned him $5,000, based on the loan's co-signer's good credit. That would be his old friend and Best Man, George Cochran. The rest of what was owed would be paid back from the sale of excess stock.
The next day a quarter-page ad went into the L.A. Herald, advertising "the greatest bargains ever seen".
|The first ad for Letts' Broadway Store|
He made money from the start, and his fortune grew quickly. By 1907, he had purchased 100 acres of land with a small knoll in the far-out Los Feliz area of Hollywood, and here he had built his mansion of success, calling it Holmby House in honor of his native homeland.
|Holmby House and Gardens ca. 1910|
Shopping in a "department store" back when Arthur started in Los Angeles was very different from today. Imagine all transactions rounded to the nearest nickel--one of Broadway's "firsts" was to provide exact change for each transaction. He was first in Los Angeles to use marked, fixed pricing--prior to that each item was a negotiation between you and the clerk. Another first in L.A. was the Broadway's offer of store credits for returns. Before that if you bought it, you owned it. At Christmas, as biographer Kilner wrote, "he was right there with an ad inviting the children to come to The Broadway and see a 'real live Santa Claus.' Santa was to be loaded with presents, and would give a bag of candy free to every little boy and girl who came to see him".
Changes were also introduced on the employee side. Beginning in the Spanish-American War, full salary was given to all employees who volunteered and were called up for service, and Arthur agreed to provide pensions to any employee's family who lost his life during the war, to the full amount of the salary the employee was receiving when he enlisted. At a time when children had to work to support their family, he worked with the Board of Education to use one of their teachers to open a school in the store for child workers. Each morning employees under eighteen were allowed to attend the 1 1/2 hour class, which included arithmetic, grammar, composition, history and other topics. He provided half-day holidays each week during July and August, and shortened daily working hours for employees, closing at 5:30 p.m., a full hour earlier than usual.
|Postcard of the Residence and Gardens, ca. 1910|
In 1909, the estate was a stop on the Points of Interest for Hollywood tour, which also included Paul De Longpre's residence about a mile away. The Herald write-up in their Sunday magazine:
Arthur Letts' Mansion and Grounds
Immense country place. Large sunken gardens. A full acre of every known variety of cacti. Flowers in profusion. The largest coca plumosa drive in Southern California. Grounds open to visitors Thursdays.
In 1905 Arthur accepted the office of Vice-President of the L.A. Y.M.C.A. The directorate had been recently reorganized, with Frederick Rindge taking on the President position. But Rindge died before most action could be taken, and Arthur as president, drove a subscription drive for a new Y.M.C.A. building downtown, and by 1908 the new building was completed. This service was augmented by his volunteering for the Boy Scouts of America, serving as a National Vice-President in 1917. He donated ten acres for use as a camp site in Nichols Canyon. It was used until the 1950's, when it was sold by the Boy Scouts for development, with the exception of a small 1/4 acre strip, which contains a memorial to J.B. Lankershim, who also donated camp land.
|Camp Arthur Letts in the 1920's|
(today's address for the tents would be 7551 Kimdale Lane)
|Janss Real Estate map|
(courtesy of raremaps.com)
|Looking down Janss Steps, 1977|
1923 was not the best year for Arthur. According to Unreal Estate, a recent book focused on the owners of Holmby Hills and Beverly Hills residences through the years, Arthur went to Florence and asked for a divorce, citing desertion for the prior year. But soon after, Arthur suffered a nervous breakdown, and per the New York Times, was dead of double pneumonia within a month. Did he ask for a divorce? It is known that upon Arthur's death she immediately left the house, going to San Francisco where a Charles Quinn lived. From there she applied for a passport stating intentions to travel to Europe. Her return in June, 1924 through the port of New York was as Florence Quinn, wife of Charles. Together with Charles, she was to move to Holmby Hills in the early 1930's just down the street from two of her children, remaining at 141 South Carolwood until her death in 1944.
|Holmby House in Happier Times|
(courtesy of USC Digital Collections)
|At the Funeral Service|
|The Family Mausoleum Today|
With Arthur's passing The Broadway was sold to a group of investors led by son-in-law Malcolm McNaghten (married to daughter Edna), who had been a Vice President of Finance at The Broadway. John G. Bullock led the buyout for his namesake department store. Son Arthur Jr. who had become President of The Broadway upon his father's death, focused his efforts on the real estate side of the family business after the department stores were sold. And besides the breakup of business, Arthur Jr. divorced in 1930, while daughter Gladys divorced in 1932.
Holmby House and the gardens itself were first finished about 1907. On the property in 1923 were Arthur and Florence in the main house, and daughter Gladys and husband Harold Janss lived in a grand house on a portion of the northeast corner of the land. But what was to happen to the main house and gardens with Arthur's death? It had been Arthur's stated wish to keep the gardens, to the extent he had provided money in his will for maintenance. Neither Florence nor Edna nor Gladys nor Arthur Jr. would try to live up to Arthur's wish. Harold the developer led the creation of "Franklin Avenue Square", razing the house completely. Some of the exotic plants were moved to Arthur Jr.'s new house in Holmby Hills, and Henry Huntington procured many of the exotic cacti for use in his cactus garden in San Marino. In less than 30 short years, the house had been built, then torn down. Nothing remains today.
|An Aerial Composite of today and yesterday|
Photos of the Gardens and House Interior
Gladys's 1933 "toy" after her divorce
It was a family business